U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Stories We Tell

A couple weeks ago, This American Life devoted most of an episode to the story of Emir Kamenica, who came to this country as child, a refugee from the Bosnian war, and is now a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.  Having recently arrived in Atlanta with little English, attending high school at a rough, urban public school, Kamenica’s fortunes suddenly changed when a substitute English teacher named Ms. Ames took an interest in him and suggested that he accompany her to the Padeia School, a prestigious private school where Ms. Ames had a job interview.  Kamenica managed to talk his way into a scholarship at Paideia, after which he went to Harvard, where he received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees.  But the most extraordinary thing about this story is that the reason that Ms. Ames took an interest to him was an essay that he wrote that he plagiarized by translating a paragraph from a favorite Bosnian novel into English and presenting it as his own thoughts.

Kamenica never saw Ms. Ames again after the day she took him to Paideia. But he’s deeply grateful to her. Indeed, this story of the role she played in making his success possible is a central story he tells about himself. The place of the plagiarized essay in the story only underscores how much success is a matter of luck, happenstance, and the kindness of others.

Reporting the story for TAL, writer Michael Lewis (author of, among other things, Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Blind Side) hired a private investigator to track down the mysterious Ms. Ames (whose first name, which turns out to be Lauren, and even the spelling of her last name were unknown to Kamenica).  When they found her, she remembered Emir well. But her version of the story was utterly different.

She was not a substitute teacher, but a student teacher, who got to know Emir Kamenica over the course of many months. And she remembers the school as a very good one, not the hellish place that Kamenica remembers.  Young Emir stood out as a particularly outstanding student, however.  So she arranged an interview for him at Paideia (her never had a job interview there).  Her principal, however, was furious when he found at that she was encouraging such a fine student to leave his school. So she was punished by being sent to a much worse school in the district, which eventually led to her decision to leave the profession.   One more thing: she has no recollection of the plagiarized paper.

Lewis eventually sits Ames and Kamenica down together and they compare stories.  Although Lewis emphasizes how few details of either of their versions are objectively verifiable, Lewis’s rendition of this tale more or less assumes that Ames remembers things correctly and essentially concludes by noting that Kamenica barely changes his own version of the tale in light of discovering (what Ames and Lewis present as simply) the truth.

As presented by Lewis and This American Life, the story of Kamenica and his own story of his life are about many things, among them the often-shaky bases for our autobiographical understandings.  My immediate thoughts upon hearing it involved the difficulties of oral history. For all their immediacy, people’s tales about their own pasts are often misremembered or rewritten to fit into larger stories they tell about themselves.  Of course this is hardly news. Indeed, it reinforces prejudices I already have about trusting the stories that people tell.  So in a way it was a very easy conclusion for me to reach.

But the more I thought about Kamenica and Ames’s stories of their pasts, the more I realized that it’s harder to for us historians to get out from under the extraordinary human ability to effortless spin coherent narratives out of the messy stuff of existence.  To begin with, our livelihoods depend on such stories…though often the ones we tell, especially in intellectual and cultural history, are abstract enough that there’s not even a concrete fact-of-the-matter against which the narrative can be checked.  Moreover, even when we base our work on seemingly more concrete records, we are still all more often than not reliant on such narrative constructions.  Veering away from oral history is only the most superficial kind of protection against the problems raised by the competing stories of Kamenica’s childhood.

I certainly don’t think there’s any getting away from narrative. Indeed, I think there are few things more essentially human than telling stories about ourselves.  And while I think we ought to check our narratives as much as possible against objective evidence (at least in our capacity as historians), more often than not our narratives tend to be based on other narratives rather than some more concrete and seemingly objective sort of evidence.  Most of the time, there’s no Ms. Ames to find and question….and even when there is, she simply provides another story, which is also dependent on the vagaries of narrative and memory.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Indeed, it reinforces prejudices I already have about trusting the stories that people tell. So in a way it was a very easy conclusion for me to reach.

    But the more I thought about Kamenica and Ames’s stories of their pasts, the more I realized that it’s harder to for us historians to get out from under the extraordinary human ability to effortless spin coherent narratives out of the messy stuff of existence.

    Sagacious, Ben. My favorite is that although today we know Gen. Ethan Allen as one of the few genuine deists of the Founding era, in his autohagiography he demands the British surrender Ft. Ticonderoga “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!”

    Earwitnesses attested Allen actually said, “Come out of there, you sons of British whores, or I’ll smoke you out!”

    Well, it does tell us something about the religiosity of Allen’s intended audience, and likewise, those who solicit and record oral histories may well be influencing what people “remember.”

  2. @Ben Alpers: Off-topic, but do you follow Alan Gilbert’s posts on Strauss? (I know you’re working on Strauss since you’ve said that here.) Gilbert has another post on Strauss just up in case you haven’t seen it. Frankly I can’t really be bothered to read it (but then I’m not working on Strauss).
    Gilbert’s blog:
    http://democratic-individuality.blogspot.com

    Oh, and Tom: don’t go there; you won’t like it. (Even I don’t agree w/ his foreign-policy pronouncements some of the time.)

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